Kenneth Lonergan Shares Some Wisdom With Tisch Dramatic Writing

His play, ‘The Waverly Gallery,’ starring Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Michael Cera and more, is on at the Golden Theatre now until Jan. 27.

Terry Curtis Fox (left) and Kenneth Lonergan (right). Photo by author.

This Friday, NYU alumnus Kenneth Lonergan paid a visit to Tisch’s Dramatic Writing department for a sit-down Q&A with department head Terry Curtis Fox. During the event, Lonergan engaged with a wealth of topics, offering a detailed glimpse into his process and positions as a writer.

To start, Lonergan discussed his most 2001 piece, The Waverly Gallery, an Off-Broadway production about one woman’s disintegration in the face of Alzheimer’s. It’s currently on Broadway starring Elaine May. When asked about why he chose to tell this story, he admitted that it came from a personal place; it was inspired by the death of his grandmother, who he ultimately did not know too well due to her struggles with Alzheimer’s. When confronted with a “story problem” by Fox, that the, “character with the big, juicy part loses her agency,” Lonergan stood his ground.

“There’s no story, if she’s not trying to stay connected,” he said. “Even though her mind is gone, her emotional attention is still engaging with others. She has agency, it’s just not working.”

From there, he stressed the importance of “accidents” in writing, saying that they’re the best indication of when something is working and are often an indication of, “the real play, the one that you’re trying to write.”

Lonergan then went on to discuss — to the delight of the Film and Dramatic Writing students in attendance — his approach to writing, stressing the importance of simplicity and citing The Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a major source of inspiration for the alarming but calculated mundanity of Manchester by the Sea (2016), Lonergan’s most successful work to date. He mentioned the pacing of Manchester, as well as of his other works like 2011’s Margaret, maintaining that it should be purposeful, but that you should never stray from, “telling a story in a way that feels organic.” Lonergan admitted that, though he spent a little time in Massachusetts towns like Manchester as a child, the ideas for the story and setting were given to him by John Krasinski and Matt Damon. As such, he had to go to great lengths to familiarize himself with the town that the story revolved around.

“Mostly, it was just on the phone,” he said of the research. “I talked to the library a lot [and] the more I found out about the town, the more I added in.” He said that he, admittedly, did not get much of a sense for the inhabitants of the town until he visited it for scouting purposes, but even then his discoveries didn’t inform character too much. “I try not to comment on the way other people do things, whether I like it or not,” he noted.

As for his writing process, Lonergan did not shy from the fact that, when it comes down to it, nothing is set in stone for him:

“Sometimes it takes two years, sometimes 10, sometimes 20 … I try to [disappear into the story] but if it’s not going well, I have to work harder at that. It’s a bit of a hit or miss — I don’t understand the whole process truthfully.”

The Academy Award winner has no rules for writing. He simply writes. And even then, it is mostly up to feeling. The most important thing, for him, is that he’s excited, and that he’s able to maintain that excitement throughout the writing process. If a writer gets bored with something, it probably means that it’s a “dead piece.” Ultimately, the only advice on writing he could give was to, “feel [your] way through it.”

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